The press and private lives

MPR’s Midmorning is exploring where to draw the line between the public’s right to know and a political candidate’s private life. The show is motivated by the Star Tribune’s questioning of all gubernatorial candidates about their substance abuse and mental health, which followed and acknowledgment by Mark Dayton that he suffers from alcoholism and depression. (I’ve written about this issue here)

The guests are:

Carol Dahmen: Political strategist who worked for former California Gov. Gray Davis. She also advised Gary Condit and the California secretary of state Kevin Smalley, who resigned in 2005 amidst charges of sexual harrassment.

Florence Graves: Founding Director, Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.

Frank Farley: Psychology professor at Temple University. He studies risk taking and mental health issues.

Bob Shrum: Longtime Democratic political strategist. He’s now retired and teaches at New York University. He has worked with many campaigns including John Kerry’s presidential bid and Sen. George McGovern’s in 1972. He also advised Mark Dayton’s first Senate campaign.


Graves: “It’s a legitimate query. It might affect his right to govern and the public has the right to know.” She says the question should be directed at whether or not there’s been treatment. She says Bush acknowledged being close to being an alcoholic. If he had not addressed it, she thinks it would’ve become a bigger issue. “The fact he did address it allows people to move on.”

Should politicians ask whether candidates have ever had sex with a woman not the wife? “No,” she says. “That’s over the line.”

Dahmen: “Once they (politicians) drink the Kool Aid of the power, they become cloaked in invincibility and they don’t recognize the behavior they’re engaging in is bad.” Do more mainstream media organizations feel more compelled to ask these questions? “Mainstream media … is no longer around,” she says. Oh. I thought this show was based on the actions of a mainstream media organization.

Dahmen says “everything is on the table.” Graves nodded (verbally), but didn’t Graves just say asking a candidate whether they’ve had an affair is “over the line?” If everything is on the table, there isn’t a line.

9:18 a.m. – One of the guests just repeated that the stigma of alcoholism and mental health disorder isn’t what it was. I hear this a lot but few people ever offer any evidence to prove it. And Kerri Miller points out that a recent survey said at least half of those surveyed would hold it against a candidate.

Caller:: If a candidate can’t abstain from these things, how would they be able to govern? (Not sure how one abstains from mental illness)

Online comment: Just knowing whether a person has depression doesn’t say anything about a person’s ability to governor.

9:23 a.m. – Miller says there’s a perception to facing down cancer and beating it. But there’s not the same perception about alcoholism. Guest notes that certain conditions have been hidden from the public, such as FDR having “paralysis issues.” And JFK was on many drugs. Did we have a right to know that? She says we did. She says people need to be educated to know that people need to be educated.

9:26 a.m. – Caller Sarah notes that JFK was blackmailed by J. Edgar Hoover because of an affair he had. “If this is not public information, then this is information that can be used against certain politicians.”

Carol Dahmen acknowledges it’s a concern but “we may be missing a larger piece when it comes to politicians. There needs to be more research done on narcissistic personality disorder. Seventy-five percent of men suffer from it,” she says. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on that.

9:28 a.m. – Online comment: “The only thing that matters is can they do their job.”

Right, Graves says. “Can they do their job in light of these things.” She says Justice Brandeis said politicians have renounced their right to privacy.

Graves, who broke the Robert Packwood story, says “you could not have gotten the story into the Washington Post pre-Anita Hill…. Times have changed.”

(News break. Then Farley and Shrum)

9:36 a.m. – We’re bringing up the Sen. Tom Eagleton situation in which Eagleton, the VP pick of George McGovern in 1972, was dumped after he acknowledged treatment for depression. “We need to grow up as a society,” Shrum says. “We need to understand that mental illness is an illness.”

9:37 a.m. – Miller says that implies there’s still a stigma associated with that. Could a candidate today disclose what Eagleton did and stay on the ticket? “It’d be difficult for the presidency and vice presidency,” Shrum says. “For other offices, the problem would’ve been much different today than a generation ago.”

Farley: “We’re becoming more sophisticated about mental health and mental illness.” (Bob: If that’s true, why did the Star Tribune separate mental health from “normal” health and associate it with substance abuse?).

“Fifty percent of Americans would be nervous about someone who might be bipolar,” Farley says. “If someone has been treated in the past, it’s in the past. Treating mental illness as other illnesses, if the candidate says ‘I’ve been successfully treated for more illness, the electorate should move on.”

Shrum says if a candidate discloses the information, it shows they’re honest. “We wouldn’t elect a candidate who has a debilitating physical illness that could result in incapacitation or death.”

(Bob notes: By the way, several guests here have indicated Bush acknowledged alcoholism. Technically, he didn’t. He insisted he wasn’t an alcoholic, only that he “drank too much’ before a religious conversion).

9:42 a.m. – What would happen if we asked a woman candidate if they’d had an abortion?

This brings up an ethical situation in the past. When Alan Quist was running for governor, his wife acknowledged she had had an abortion many years ago. Was that relevant to the campaign?

Farley and Shrum disagree. “Abortion is off the table,” Farley says. Again, this brings up the question: Why?

“You may have changed your views,” Farley says.

“Then you state that,” Shrum replies. “If rank hypocrisy is involved, things that aren’t relevant become relevant.”

9:45 a.m. A fascinating observation in the comments section:

As a psychologist who often has to write evaluations of people for work or disability applications, I can tell you that there is almost no diagnosis that makes a prima facie case for disability. Churchill led the British through WWII on two quarts of brandy, several martinis and a bottle of champagne per day. Lincoln’s depression was extremely severe but didn’t keep him from leading the country with wisdom, grace and beauty. I thinbk perhaps the best contribution of your guests this morning is to light a fire under the mental health professions to do a much better job of educating people about the meaning of these diagnoses.

9:47 a.m. – This e-mail just arrived:

The Midmorning guest’s comment that 75% of men had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was grossly in error. Presumably the guest was mislead by a published estimate that as many as 75% of the sufferers of NPD might be men, which is quite a different thing. Even that estimate may be too high, though the evidence does indicate a higher prevalence among men than women:

“Prevalence of lifetime NPD was 6.2%, with rates greater for men (7.7%) than for women (4.8%).”

(Stinson FS, Dawson DA, Goldstein RB, Chou SP, Huang B, Smith SM, Ruan WJ, Pulay AJ, Saha TD, Pickering RP, Grant BF. Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV narcissistic personality disorder: results from the wave 2 national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. J Clin Psychiatry. 2008 Jul;69(7):1033-45.)

9:48 a.m. – A caller with bipolar disorder asks, “If all things are equal, why would you pick the candidate with a mental illness?”

Farley says mental health is directly related to decisions in an emergency situation, “so you want a clear mind and a rational thinker.”

Bob notes: But that’s the problem, the fact someone acknowledges he/she has had a mental illness, doesn’t really tell you anything about that ability. We’ve got a lot of people coming home from war who are now getting into politics. If they answer “yes,” to the question the Star Tribune posed, how is the distinction made about counseling they had for their war experiences, and any number of other mental health issues?

— End of show —

11:11 a.m. – An e-mail from Eden Prairie:

I was so offended by Kerri Miller’s coverage of this topic that I had to turn off the radio. Although it is very common and highly treatable, depression still has a stigma which prevents many from seeking treatment. I see Mark Dayton’s openness as a role model. Yet Kerri and her guests aligned this with infidelity – “Do we have the right to know if someone has suffered from depression? How about if they lack integrity and ethics?” Wow!

I see this more as akin to FDR and the press hiding the fact that he was in a wheel chair. Today we wouldn’t do that with a physical disability, but we feel the need to shame someone for having a very common illness like depression.

  • John O.

    Maybe the gubernatorial candidates from both sides of the aisle should get together and do a joint survey of Strib journos for any substance abuse and/or mental health concerns.

    Abuse of political power/staff is nothing new and may or may NOT involve alcohol or mental health issues. It’s often a case of attitude and ego. And actions that are at a minimum unacceptable, at worst, illegal. Big difference.

    The press is in no position to place themselves above this fray? If a reporter has an alcohol issue (for instance) and is writing a story while intoxicated, am I as a consumer supposed to just give him or her a free pass and just blindly assume that their reporting is accurate?

  • bob

    I favor a warts and all approach. I’d go even further and require criminal background checks of candidates, as well as urine tests. After all politicians are in essence public employees, and should be subjected to the same hiring/employment requirements of police, firefighters, teachers, etc.

  • John O.

    It was the Press that was complicit in protecting those politicians at those times in American history. We did not have the internet, Twitter, facebook, etc. It’s a lot different to have 20/20 hindsight on Roosevelt and Kennedy, but it is a whole different discussion to consider the “what if” possibilities of a 21st century candidate.

  • Jennifer

    As with any medical condition that can interfere with our daily lives, isn’t it more important rather than knowing whether someone’s suffered from it, if they’ve received treatment, how they responded, and if it has any effect on their ability to function on a daily basis.

    If someone has been in remission from cancer for 5 years, I wouldn’t assume that cancer will keep them from doing their job. So why do we assume that past treatment for things like this should automatically be a red flag? I think it says far more about how little the general public knows about mental illness rather than how well someone would be able to do his/her job.

  • Dr. Stephen Parker

    As a psychologist who often has to write evaluations of people for work or disability applications, I can tell you that there is almost no diagnosis that makes a prima facie case for disability. Churchill led the British through WWII on two quarts of brandy, several martinis and a bottle of champagne per day. Lincoln’s depression was extremely severe but didn’t keep him from leading the country with wisdom, grace and beauty. I thinbk perhaps the best contribution of your guests this morning is to light a fire under the mental health professions to do a much better job of educating people about the meaning of these diagnoses.

  • Lindsay

    I actually found Mark Dayton’s admission of depression to be somewhat reassuring. I struggle with depression myself, but I don’t believe that depression makes me a weirdo who is unfit for a public life. Hearing from Mark Dayton reminded me that I’m not alone. I can relate to him better now. He’s more human. Thanks Mark Dayton!

  • Jane

    I feel that mental health disclosure for politicians is a total invasion of privacy.

    If it were to become law, it would prevent good civic individuals from serving their country. It takes a special person to run for politics. To get into the public arena to be blasted even when you’re doing good, is not a job for everyone.

    The health of mind and body go together. I agree with the Dr. that said the Mental Health Organization needs to better educate the public, and therefore they wouldn’t be so paranoid about some politician who may have previously suffered from depression and was successfully treated.

  • CS

    I feel that the guests this morning have strayed beyond journalism and reporting to activism and attempts at shaping public perception and policy. I keep hearing the guests say that the public needs to be educated, and in fact one of the first two guests openly said that it was okay if a few lives were destroyed along the way in pursuit of forcing this change in the public arena. This is not journalism, this is using the tool of journalism to force change that you want. My respect for journalism as a profession at large is eroded every day, and that point is only reinforced when comments like this are made by people who are considered to be on the leading edge of the profession.

    More to the point of the question, activity that is private and NOT ILLEGAL has no place in the public eye and should be above scrutiny by the media. The examples given by our guests of important figures who have been exposed by investigative journalism have all involved activity that is illegal, I have seen no compelling evidence that investigating a political figure for alcoholism or depression has shown that they are not doing a good job, only that they are not electable.

    If we continue down this road, the only people that are going to run for office are going to be the “narcissistic” people that your guests are trying to expose in the first place.

  • Alison

    One thing is for certain, a lot of qualified, thoughful, and likely humble, people will be discouraged seeking from public office.

  • John O.

    Alison, I know several folks who fit your description who have been offered opportunities to run for varying levels of public office in recent years and have said “no thanks.”

    Aside from having professional (and, now, amateur reporters) tracing their every move 24/7, the thought of having every member of their immediate family being “fair game” was enough by itself to squelch the idea of running for office.